On December 7th, we here at the field school were fortunate to host Pam Dawling as our speaker for a workshop on Crop Planning and Year Round Production. Pam has almost 40 years of experience in sustainable agriculture and authored the book Sustainable Market Farming, which is a vital resource to growers with operations of all sizes. Along with her farming know-how, Pam is a phenomenal educator and is contributing editor for Growing for Market magazine and writes a blog at SustainableMarketFarming.com. Pam lives at the Twin Oaks Community, an intentional community and ecovillage of around 100 people, where she oversees the vegetable and berry gardens.
Winter is upon us, seed catalogs are starting to come out, and now is the time for crop planning! At the field school meeting, Pam shared her “12 Step” program for creating a useful (and ultimately stress-reducing!) crop plan. By taking the time to plan out your farm’s production in the winter, you can increase production and hopefully profits by ensuring that every time a crop is harvested, there are plants or seeds waiting to be put in for a new round of crops. It reduces the stress of having to think critically during the busiest times of the season. Rather than trying to figure out what’s next when there’s already empty rows, you can just refer back to your crop plan (or better yet, set up a series of timely reminders on your calendar) and put in the next thing.
For farms with CSAs, crop planning also ensures that there is enough variety week to week to keep your customers happy. No one wants 5lbs of radishes because that’s all you have to harvest! A good plan lets you set target harvest dates for dozens of crops, so you can have a steady week to week supply of customer favorites plus backups in case something fails.
The first time you sit down to create a crop plan, it’ll probably take a few days of work. But in following years, you will spend much less time, just going over your notes and making tweaks where necessary. Pam recommends that you keep meticulous records of when you actually started seeds, transplanted, and harvested. You can create your first crop plan using days to harvest info from seed catalogs, but then make adjustments year to year as you get to know your land.
Here are Pam’s 12 Steps for Crop Planning:
- How much money do you need to earn? Pam recommends that you make sure you’re earning at least minimum wage ($7.25/hr)! What are your living expenses and farm expenses? What prices will you set for what you sell at market?
- Which markets will you sell at? Farmers Markets, Grocery Stores, Wholesale, Restaurants, Farm Stand, CSAs, etc?
- Which crops are most profitable in your area? What crops can you grow that are in demand at your market and that will give you a good return on your investment (including your time, blood, sweat, and tears)? What less-profitable crops do you want to grow to bolster and diversify your offerings?
- How much do you want to harvest—and when? Take into account each crop’s timeline and set out a harvest schedule. (Ex. You need 20 heads of romaine each week)
- How much should you plant? Pam recommends planting at least 10% more than you think you need, to guard against weather and pest issues. If you’re a beginning grower, you might want more than this!
- What is your field planting schedule? Taking into account each crop’s days to maturity and whether or not you’ll be direct seeding or transplanting, work backwards from your harvest schedule to create your field planting schedule. (Remember, “days to maturity” does not necessarily equate to “days to full harvest,” so study up on what you’re growing!)
- What is your seedling/transplant schedule? If you are starting your own seeds indoors or in a greenhouse, take this into account in your schedule so you’ll know when to start each crop.
- Make crop maps! Where are all of these plants going to grow? What is optimal spacing for your crops and your goals?
- How can you pack more into your space? Can you practice intercropping, relay planting, and/or double cropping? Where can you find space for succession crops? Pam has resources on all of these methods in her book and online presentations!
- Adjust and tweak to optimize your space. Are you using all of your available space? Or are you out of space? What are your priorities based on your markets, signature crops, and personal needs?
- What if something goes wrong? Plan B. Do you have a strategy for damage control or in case of complete crop failure? What can you do or plant to make up for any potential losses?
- Next year’s better plan. Keep good records so you can look back on what worked, what didn’t, what surprised you, and what you learned.
Resources for every step of the planning process can be found on Pam’s blog and her PowerPoint presentation.
For free downloadable excel spreadsheets, check out these developed by Dr. Joel Gruver from NC State University:
For free crop planning software, follow this link for download information: https://github.com/claytonrcarter/cropplanning
Mother Earth News also has an interactive vegetable garden planner that is free to use for 30 days.